Monday, October 5, 2009

TV Review: Stargate Universe (2009 - ??)

I’m a big fan of Stargate SG-1. I wasn’t always. There was something about the look of the show that kept me away for years; it felt cheaply made. But one day I gave it chance. The first season was weak, but soon I was hooked. With great characters, a fantastic sense of humor, and writers who dealt with the standard sci-fi themes and clichés in ways that were truly innovative and much deeper than anything I’d seen on other shows, SG-1 became one of my favorite shows.

As a pleasant aside, SG-1 always displayed very conservative values, and it never preached the liberalism that poisons so much modern sci-fi, but that’s for another review.

Then came Stargate Atlantis. I liked Stargate Atlantis, though it always felt like a lazy rip-off of SG-1. The Wraith (a sort of vampire-like race) were much more menacing bad guys than the Goa’uld from SG-1, but the characters were copies of the SG-1 originals and the plot lines were by and large similar -- though, toward the end of the series, they produced some incredibly well done episodes.

So when I heard about Stargate Universe (a.k.a. SG-U) I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I certainly wouldn’t mind more Stargate on the old tube. But on the other hand, I figured it would be even more derivative.

Well, color me impressed!

** spoiler alert **

The first thing I noticed about SG-U was that it had a completely different look and feel to the originals. Gone were the obvious sound stages and in came a dynamic, realistic set. The lighting had changed, the camera angles changed, the editing changed and the pacing. It looked and felt a LOT like the new Battlestar Galactica, only not as dark (lighting-wise or theme-wise).

The next thing I noticed was the total absence of the knock-off characters. There was no Jack O’Neill, no Daniel Jackson, no Samantha Carter and no Teal’c. Instead, we were given Dr. Nicholas Rush, played by the very talented Robert Carlyle who I first noticed as Begbie in Trainspotting. What makes Rush so unique is that he’s an ass and a liar, and while he’s quite brilliant, he doesn’t know everything. Most interestingly, he’s not very likable and he doesn’t seem to care about the other people he’s stranded with him.

Now I know that most modern shows suffer from character drift, where the writers and actors consciously or subconsciously conspire to eventually turn every character into the sole-tortured, reluctant hero, but I get the feeling that Rush will be different. Carlyle does not strike me as an actor who needs to be loved. And if he keeps playing this character according to character, rather than trying to make him loved, this could be a fascinating show. He could become the most complex science fiction “hero” since the nihilistic Avon in Blake’s Seven.

The rest of the cast is acceptable, though some of the “drama” they’ve set up appears to be standard, requisite modern sci-fi drama: (1) the young, unprepared military guy suddenly thrown into a position of command -- who is conveniently the same age as “the hot chick,” (2) the angry chick who is going to buck the command structure, (3) the civilians v. the military control debate, and so on. But all in all, the show seems really fresh out of the gates.

The story line is fascinating too, though I wonder if you need a working knowledge of the first two series to get everything out of it? The person I watched the show with had not seen the first two series and, while they understood what was going on, they missed the really cool nuances and revelations that were being imparted.

For the uninitiated, the storyline went like this: a group of scientists and military-types are trying to use a device known as a stargate to go somewhere unknown. The stargate is a big ring with symbols on it that works like a phone -- you dial a number using the symbols and a wormhole appears, letting you travel instantly to the gate you’ve dialed. This group is aware of a gate address that uses nine symbols (chevrons), rather than the normal seven or eight, but does not know where it goes or quite how to dial that address. As they are experimenting, the base is attacked. Rush gets the gate to open to the nine chevron address and they have no choice but to evacuate the base to that address. The address turns out to be a many million year old spaceship (the Destiny) that is traveling across the universe. The ship is falling apart, and they can’t get back. Cue the series.

But what the uninitiated missed. . . First, you see every member of SG-1 except Teal’c. Jack O’Neill recruits Eli (the whiz kid). Daniel Jackson narrates the videotape that explains to Eli what is going on. Samantha Carter commands the spaceship defending the base when it is attacked. (A host of other appeared too.) The base is attacked by the Lucian Alliance, a ruthless dictatorship that appeared in the final two seasons of SG-1. The communication devices Rush claims to use were the subject of a several episode story arc that introduced the Ori (the last big bad guys -- a thinly-veiled reference to militant Islam) to the series. It also wasn’t explained what was so neat about finding a nine chevron address. Seven chevrons lets you move around the galaxy. After much trouble, SG-1 discovered that you could use an eighth chevron to move between galaxies -- though they only found an address for the Pegasus address. But all that is just flavor.

What was really interesting was that the show added a major piece to the show’s mythology: it explained how the Ancients built the stargate system. The Ancients are the first human-like race in the universe. The vanished long before we humans came along. The Ancients built the stargate system, but it was never explained how they got the gates around the universe. Now we know. They sent automated ships out across the universe to spot potentially habitable planets and plant stargates. Then they sent ships like the Destiny to go investigate those gates. The Destiny is automated, though it has a stargate on board (also a new idea -- a mobile gate) that would allow the Ancients to visit the ship. Though, with the ancients long gone, the ship has been abandoned for millions of years. Tre cool!

At this point, the show looks like it’s going to be quite good. Great effects, creative writing, fresh characters and new storylines. I’d recommend checking this one out. It’s on Friday nights on the Sci-Fi Channel.

You can also see the pilot here: Click Me.


JG said...

My family is really into Stargate. I haven't yet watched Universe, but I probably will catch up here in a couple of weeks.

Sidenote, Robert Carlyle was on Fox's RedEye this week. He was very excited about the show (I think, his accent was so thick that I - and the hosts - had a hard time understanding him.)

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I came at this in a slightly different way, but I end up with the same conclusions. I loved the movie, and stuck with the TV series right up until Colonel O'Neill ceased to be a fulltime regular (I liked his semi-replacement Ben Browder in Farscape, but didn't much care for him in SG-1). Daniel's quirks and tics were part of his persona, and when they disappeared, he wasn't as interesting. But all things considered, I still liked the show.

I didn't like Stargate Atlantis nearly as much, and I can't really tell you why. Good crew, interesting characters, but I never seemed to be able to get into it, or figure out where they were trying to go with the plotlines.

Like you, I approached Universe warily. And about ten minutes in, I was hooked. As you said, Carlyle is the heart of the show, but there's just so damned much going on that I hope they can keep it up. Fortunately here they showed the premier twice in a row. Since so much went on in it that I needed to see it again, I was grateful to be able to see it twice in a row. If it can even come close to keeping up this pace, plot-development and character-development, this one's a major winner.

AndrewPrice said...

JG, As you can tell, I'm a huge Stargate fan. I was really happy with SG-U. It's very different, but it feels really top notch and really unique. I think it's going to be a very good show.

I didn't see Carlyle on Red Eye, but I've heard him speak before -- heavy, heavy accent. I read somewhere that he and some of the others in Trainspotting actually had to re-dub their lines to make them understandable to non-Scottish audiences.

He still uses his accent in SG-U, but it's very slight.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I didn't care much for Browder replacing O'Neill either, O'Neill (and Don Davis) brought something to the show that I think Browder just couldn't bring. Still, I did like Landry and I liked Vala a lot. I agree that Jackson's character kind of lost his way in the later seasons. Still, I enjoyed the show right up to the end.

Atlantis always felt weak to me as well, though I liked the buddy-relationship that developed between Sheppard and McKay later in the series. I also think they had some of the best stand alone episodes of the series near the end, when they were finally taking some chances.

I figure I'll review both series at some point, particularly their politics.

I was really impressed with what they did in SG-U and I hope they keep it up. This could be a great show.

(P.S. I both loved and hated Farscape -- very inconsistent show.)

StanH said...

I didn’t watch the first two installments of Stargate on TV but did watch SG-U. My wife and I watched the pilot and enjoyed it thoroughly the TIVO is set.

PS: Did watch the movie and enjoyed it.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I enjoyed the movie a lot as well. I like Russell and Spader and it had good effects and a really original storyline.

Writer X said...

Andrew, another great review!

I'm a huge Stargate fan. For me, Jack O'Neil was the show. He could be just the right amount of funny and serious to keep the show interesting. Ben Browder kept trying too hard to be Jack O'Neil instead of his own character, and I can think of only one Stargate episode with him that I really liked. So, to say the least, I was very excited to watch Stargate Universe.

I like the changes to the plot--9 chevrons, Destiny, etc.,--but most of the characters (except Carlyle) felt a little flat too me. As you pointed out, some of them were a little predictable. But, I'm willing to keep watching, though, because I think the characters just need more of a chance to jell with the plotlines. Between STARGATE UNIVERSE and GLEE, I feel that there may be some hope for the new Fall line-up.

P.S. I think Carlyle was also in THE FULL MONTY, which was hysterical.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Thanks.

We're getting quite the Stargate fan club here! I was worried I was going to be the only person who enjoys the show!

I agree about both O'Neill and Browder. O'Neill had the perfect amount of funny and serious to be the heart of the show. Browder doesn't. I remember asking myself once how Browder would have done in the time repeating episode, where O'Neill and Teal'c keep repeating the day, and I just can't see him pulling it off -- too angry.

The Full Monty was funny. I'd forgotten Carlyle was in that. The one thing I didn't like Carlyle in (and it was more that the movie stunk) was 28 Weeks Later -- very poor sequel to an otherwise neat horror movie.

I haven't seen GLEE yet.

Anonymous said...

I still haven't made up my mind about Universe, but I'm tremendously relieved to discover an apparently intelligent adult who likes Stargate SG. I feel very reassured.
And last week I found out that Amanda Tapping got a degree in theatre arts, or something like that, at a university where I studied law. I missed her by just two years. And it was such a small campus! Sigh.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, We seem to have a regular hive of Stargate SG fans here! I'm impressed! Who knew?!

I think Universe has a lot of potential. I really like Carlyle and particularly the way he's playing Rush. I like the setting, the style and the set up. There are some things that could easily fall into cliche, but I'm going to take it on faith right now that they'll do something interesting and original with it.

Tapping was a perfect choice for Carter. She played the role just geeky-enough to really make you believe she was the super smart scientist and just "cool" enough to see her as a butt kicking soldier. Plus, I love the relationship with her father.

rlaWTX said...

Now I gotta watch it!!! I had decided to skip it (with a full plate of TV: NCIS, Castle, Crim Minds, etc) since I just "liked" SG-A, but loved SG-1. I had missed some in the middle/mid-end so the last bit got confusing. One of these days I'll get 'em and watch 'em in order (although the one where they get old on that ship, when I saw it - WOW!). But with Sanctaury about to restart (Amanda Tapping) and SG-U getting top scores here, I guess my VCR (yep, still have a functional VCR, for reasons too complicated to think about, I can't have DVR!) will be a busy fella!!!
Thanks for the info!! (and I understand the pleasure in seeing intelligent folks' interest - I get a lot of blank stares or talking down whenever SG has come up!)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaTWX, I don't have a tivo/dvr either.

I get that too from people I know. They don't think much of science fiction to begin with (lack of imagination if you ask me) and it takes a while for Stargate to develop. So they see one or two episodes and then give up on it. Stargate is the kind of show that takes time to develop because it's actually very character driven, rather than plot driven.

Individualist said...

I like SG as well!

Although I will always like the movie best!

MegaTroll said...

This must be a conservative thing because I love SG as well. Cool review. I'm looking forward to Universe.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, Great minds huh? I like the movie a lot as well, but I see it in a different category.

Mega, I'm beginning to wonder. Either that or it's a good show?

USArtguy said...

I have to throw my cap into the SG- series fan club as well. Never got to see the episodes new, caught a lot of them in syndication. One of the things I liked about it was that the military wasn't "the bad guys". Another cliché I've grown tired of is the "every other race is superior to earthlings or stuck in the middle ages". So I always think it's cool to see the aliens with lasers, phasers and ray guns get taken out by earthlings with Uzis. Reading your review almost makes me want to get cable. (Yes, I'm the one person in America who doesn't have cable or satellite ).

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, So you're the one! LOL!

Follow the link to HULU (in the article) and you can watch the SG-U pilot. I'm betting they will also have most of the current episodes as the series runs along.

I agree entirely about the military thing. SG-1 is the only show that (in my opinion) really gives you a fair portrayal of the kinds of self-less and brave people you usually find in the service. Plus, for once, they actually respect military rules and regulations. And, they don't even fall for the "stupid officers" cliche that Hollywood loves so much -- that's what I loved about Gen. Hammond, he acted like a real human being, not a cardboard Hollywood General.

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